Performers of Today: Artists or Music Historians? John Cage as a Stepping Stone to New Music

Musicworks Magazine | Summer 2006, issue # 95 | pp 11-14


This article briefly examines the separation between composers, performers, and audience which occurred in the early twentieth century, when historical recitals became the norm and performers neglected contemporary repertoire, a practice that still continues. It relates pianist Tzenka Dianova’s experience in using John Cage’s prepared-piano music as a bridge between older classical and avant-garde music, and recommends this both for audiences and performers.

In my daily communication with musicians, mostly classical music performers, I often hear the complaint “Classical music is dying!” As a performer myself, I can’t help but wonder if this really is true and, if so, why is it happening?

Throughout music history, music performance developed in parallel with composition; until the nineteenth century, most performers were composers themselves (cf. Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin). In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, performance started separating from composition. Some of the new performers were excellent improvisers (Thalberg); others, such as Clara Schumann, kept true to the author’s score. Whether truthfully interpreted or improvised upon, the music performed was always contemporary, i.e. recently composed, and a typical music concert used to be a kaleidoscope of many different music pieces, performed by different musicians or groups.

In the mid-19th century influential composers, such as Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Liszt, put a significant amount of effort and enthusiasm into “reviving” older classical music, namely that of Bach and Beethoven. At the same time, legendary pianists like Ignatz Moscheles and, later, Anton Rubinstein, started the practice of playing solo “historical recitals.” Those lasted up to three hours and presented music from past times, in which the performer demonstrated his ability to interpret the music of any époque. It wasn’t long before those kind of recitals became the norm and the term “historical” was dropped. Instrumentalists became increasingly concerned with finding the pieces of music best suited to demonstrate their abilities, such as virtuosity, “singing tone” etc. or with indulging the audience’s taste, a practice which lead to neglect of their long-time responsibility — to present contemporary music to audiences, in order to keep it up-to-date with the music of the day.

Shifting the accent from music and music creators to performers and their “versatility” lead to a deviation in the (formerly) parallel lines of development between composers and performers. While composition continued progressing in a forward motion (with the exception of a few composers who paid tribute to old music by composing in the old styles), performing art started revolving in a magic circle of music, spanning from the early eighteenth to the late nineteenth century. Contemporary music was labeled as “new” and was approached with caution and mistrust, which became even more extreme throughout the twentieth century.

It is easy to see that this practice of separation between music creators and performers did not follow the natural progression of the other arts, and its end is approaching, wrongly mistaken with the end of classical music appreciation and classical music performance.

What to do? Ideally we, performers, would be playing predominantly music that has been recently written. Nevertheless, considering that the vital composer-performer connection was damaged in the early twentieth century, we should include that century’s repertoire in our concerts in order to give the audience the chance to become acquainted with the “missing link” in music, thus preparing them to better understand and appreciate what is being composed now-days.

How would the prepared piano music of John Cage fit into that transition process?

In March 1998, I first performed Cage’s Bacchanale for prepared piano, an event that proved to be of immense significance for my personal development as an artist.

Having grown up in a small country in Eastern Europe, a satellite of the mighty USSR, I had received an excellent education in classical music, some of my teachers having direct lineage to Anton Rubinstein. Nevertheless, the infamous “iron curtain” had prevented me and my fellow musicians from experiencing almost any music written after 1900, with the exception of a few composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. It was as if composition had ended with Debussy and Ravel! I remember thinking (while playing Prokofiev) that “modern music” was just the “poor cousin” of older classical music. Indeed this was the attitude prevailing in performers’ circles. In 1992, on hearing an example of Schoenberg’s music in our music history class, students burst out laughing and whistling!

I and my musician friends went to art galleries and the theatre and wondered how it happened that all arts had developed immensely in the last hundred years, yet it seemed like music had stopped progressing, and even regressed. Then in 1993 I heard an isolated live performance of Stockhausen’s piece, Inori, and I knew that there was something more to contemporary music, something that we hadn’t heard about. In a private conversation with my history of music professor I learned that there were, in fact, many avant-garde composers in the present (now past) century, creating art that was “out there”. I heard the names Messiaen, Cage, Xenakis, Ives, Ligetti (yes, we didn’t even have information on such Eastern European composers as Ligetti, Lutoslawski or Ustvol’skaya!).

In February 1998 I arrived in Canada, where I was to study at the University of Victoria. On the day following my long flight from Bulgaria, still dizzy with the jet-lag, I somehow made it to the university library and asked the helpful librarian for recordings of twentieth-century piano music. I went home happy, with over 40 CD’s of modern music for piano, harpsichord and organ. I sat down to listen in the late afternoon and I was still there at five in the morning. A large cup of hot coffee helped me leave the house and at half past seven I was waiting in front of the music library. My search supplied me with close to fifty music scores by all the composers I had heard the night before, some of which were oversized and all of which looked exotic and exciting. I somehow carried them home and got down to work. Oh, the excitement of being able to sight-read through Alban Berg’s sonata! Schoenberg’s music made me stop and read voices separately, but when I got to Boulez’s and Xenakis’ scores, I felt positive that they were unplayable, even though I had been a “virtuoso” for the last twenty years. And yet there were the recordings, proof that they were playable. Continuing with Charles Ives’ music, it seemed to me that one would need three hands and two brains to play his sonatas! Then I got to the graphic scores — Feldman’s short pieces and Cage’s concert for piano — and I felt my enthusiasm melt. That music was written in a different language, and it was a language I didn’t know. I comforted myself, thinking that the following years of study would bring me into contact with fellow pianists, students and professors, all of whom (of course) would be performing this kind of music and be able to help me learn how to read and perform it. Imagine my surprise when in the next few months I found that none of the numerous pianists at the school of music knew, appreciated or played any of the pieces I had heard, and which to me seemed like the best that had ever been written for the instrument piano! Nor did the professors teach any of it; they were kind and supportive and (quite against the usual practice) allowed me to complete my Masters degree exclusively in twentieth-century music, but they could not teach me how to play it. So, with a little help from a few composers, both students and teachers, I was on my own.

Back again to my practice room and to my efforts to read and comprehend what I saw. John Cage’s music for prepared piano from the 1930-1940s struck me as the kind of music that sounded extraordinary and at the same time looked as simple and easy to read as a Mozart score. Only a week after I started my research I was able to prepare for and perform in a concert Bacchanale, Cage’s first piece for prepared piano. The experience was absolutely empowering. Back in my school years, I had always envied the percussion students for the “cool” and fun music they played, to which audience infallibly responded with spontaneous standing ovations and cheers. Now, I was the percussionist in charge of a small orchestra!

I continued playing Cage’s music for prepared piano, adding pieces by Stockhausen, Feldman and Ives. The process, which was to become the most important in my life, had began!

During the following year I noticed an interesting phenomenon, which led me to undertaking some experimenting of my own:

In my past, performing and attending concerts consisting of older, pre-twentieth century classical music, I had observed that the audience present could (roughly) be divided into two groups: fellow professional musicians and elderly citizens — the former attending mainly for the reason of supporting their colleagues’ work, the latter to get a dose of “their” Tchaikovsky concerto, Beethoven’s ti-ti-ti-dam or Brahms’ erotic passion.

Performing concerts consisting exclusively of twentieth century music reduced my audience to composers, music critics from the corresponding city’s newspaper and the occasional intellectual.

My first performance of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano solo brought an almost shocking surprise – the concert hall was brimming full, with people even standing on the stairs! After the concert I mingled with the audience to find out who had come to hear “the Cage”. There wasn’t a single pianist (the one that had attended had most demonstratively left after the first ten minutes), and only five or six professional musicians. People of all ages and walks of life were excitedly talking about the music they had just heard (with a degree of competence that could surpass that of almost any musician I knew); I even spotted a couple of “street people”, one of whom had met Cage in New York, many years before. I wondered, what was it in Cage’s music that drew people to the concert hall?

In his article “Imaginary Landscaper”(1982), Eric Salzman argues that Cage was “the ultimate guru”, “a superstar of a very special sort”. Twenty-four years later, it would be safe to say that Cage indeed enjoys a very special relationship with music audiences. If we try to examine the reasons for it, we would inevitably find that people are attracted to the whole image of Cage’s persona, having become somewhat of an icon of the twentieth century.

Cage wrote essays and poetry, gave interviews, lectured, composed music, organized revolutionary concerts and happenings, and collaborated with other artists in a variety of disciplines. However, what made his art known to and close to such a wide audience was his ability and willingness to talk about the ideas behind his work in an honest and accessible way. What is more, he lived by his word. Like any other great composer/artist, Cage created ahead of his time; we now know that to be understood by a wide audience, such art needs explanation. Unlike many other composers/artists, Cage never felt above such explanation and so won audiences’ trust.

I decided to, where possible, include a piece by him in every one of my future concerts. For the last seven years I have kept to that decision and the results have always been the same — people come to hear “the Cage”!

Of course, they heard and loved all the rest — the Ives, Stockhausen, Feldman, Ustvol’skaya and much more that I had to offer them, which made me time after time appreciate the significance of John Cage’s music as an introduction to twentieth century music, as something of a “bait” to get excited audiences back in the concert hall.

As I carried on, I realized that Cage’s prepared piano music in particular had an immense significance for introducing twentieth-century music not only to audiences but also to performers. After all, it had converted me from a romantic virtuoso into a devoted modern artist.

Analyzing my feelings on beholding Xenakis’ and Boulez’s scores for a first time, it occurred to me that one of the main reasons why so many performers shy away from avant-garde twentieth century music is the “intimidating” look of most of these scores, including graphic notation, complicated or unusual markings, hyper-complex metrical organization (or the apparent lack of) etc. It came to me that with his prepared piano music, John Cage had thrown a bridge between conventionally-notated music and “extraordinary” looking (to the unaccustomed eye) notation.

Karlheinz Stockhausen once said that in order to appreciate new music we would need new ears.

By placing objects between the strings of the grand piano in such a way as to mute some, give others exotic timbre, and “tune” others to play microtones, Cage gave pianists the power to re-tune their ears (obtaining new ones being out of the question). While executing conventionally notated, visually simple music scores (which, if played on a regular piano, would sound almost tonal), piano performers can now achieve completely atonal, non-tempered sound of very subtle rhythmical and metrical complexity. In the process of performing instructions that are familiar to us, we pianists get to learn and become accustomed to hearing irregular (in comparison with what we have learnt in school), complicated sound, thus getting a step closer to feeling confident about reading and comprehending a music score with irregular, complicated appearance.

In conclusion I can only say that for the last seven years I have, by simply performing it, recommended the prepared piano music of John Cage to many pianists and music lovers as a first step to appreciation of the glorious world of twentieth century and contemporary music. And I will continue to do so.

visit Musicworks »